Dominance, Prestige, and Propriety
Ways of obtaining conformity
Anthropologist Joseph Henrich emphasizes the distinction between a dominance hierarchy and a prestige hierarchy. A dominance hierarchy is enforced by the threat of physical force. A prestige hierarchy is obtained by demonstrating skills that other wish to imitate. People are drawn to prestige voluntarily, out of respect. They accept dominance grudgingly, out of fear.
As humans, we coordinate, sometimes in very large groups. This is not because we are naturally nice. We are closely related to chimpanzees, which are naturally violent.offers further thoughts on human learning and coordination. He points out that we are an especially pro-active species when it comes to violence. Consider the planning and coordination involved in engaging in war.
On the other hand, we are relatively less re-active with regard to violence. Compared with chimps, we are less likely to react violently when bothered by other members of our species.
One speculative theory is that we are relatively restrained in our reaction to other humans because we self-domesticated. Warby suggests that the most violent males were killed off by coalitions of less-violent humans, gradually taking some of the propensity for reactive violence out of the human gene pool.
In general, I think of prestige hierarchies as good and dominance hierarchies as bad. A prestige hierarchy induces people to compete by demonstrating skills that are useful, or at least entertaining. A dominance hierarchy induces people to compete by engaging in violence.
In addition to dominance and prestige, Warby adds a third mode of social influence.
The other is propriety: status through following and exemplifying norms. A cooperative, group-living species needs to be able to both encourage, and sort, competence and to have attention paid to group cohesion. Women have tended to be particularly concerned with propriety, for stronger group cohesion generally better protects them and their children.
Suppose that a society rewards people who follow its norms and punishes people who violate its norms. This will cause more people to follow norms. I have suggested that this is what creates a high-trust, high-accountability society.
Propriety may or may not involve a hierarchy. Perhaps a hierarchy of priests will determine proper behavior. Or perhaps norms will emerge from the values articulated by various people within the society.
It can be difficult to observe directly whether someone reliably follows norms. Often, we rely on signals, such as outward signs of religious observance. This gives rise to a a game, in which norm violators try to signal that they are good, and others try to detect this sort of deception. Consider the various tactics that Sam Bankman-Fried used to convince people that he was an honorable person.
This is also true, but to a lesser extent, with prestige. People rely on signals, such as credentials, and these can either be faked or abused.
Over time, if people get better at falsely signaling propriety (or prestige( and the detection systems fail to keep pace, then these social mechanisms can break down. The group loses some of its ability to cooperate, as distrust sets in.
Warby warns that
Propriety also can shade into dominance. Especially if sanctions are to be invoked against those who are seen to act against propriety.
This is probably in the eye of the beholder. Is a social sanction against promiscuity a form of dominance? Is a social sanction against talking about differences between males and females a form of dominance?
Warby argues that the social justice movement is mostly about dominance.
If social justice is about achieving better outcomes, then that is something one can bargain over. If social justice is for its proponents (consciously or unconsciously) a status-and-social-leverage strategy, then any concession just feeds the strategy. The strategy will then continue as long as it works.
…Again and again, we observe that once something is declared to be a matter of social justice, opposition to such a claim becomes illegitimate. This is not a bargaining-to-make-things-better strategy. This is a social dominance strategy.
When we consider the realms of science and academia, our first thought is that is these are prestige hierarchies, or they ought to be. As Jonathan Rauch (The Constitution of Knowledge) and others have argued, we need a spirit of open inquiry in which better reasoning raises one’s prestige. But in recent years, I have observed increased use of dominance moves, in which dissent is suppressed. “Follow the science” is a dominance move. Instead, we should attach prestige to those who try to use the scientific method.
I think that the concepts of dominance, prestige, and propriety are useful, even though the distinctions among them may not be bright lines. I think that when our intuition tells us that people are relying on dominance moves, we should be wary. When people are gaming our systems of propriety or prestige, we should be very concerned. Many of us see the social justice movement as engaging in dominance moves and we see the important system of academia falling victim to extensive gaming.
People and ways of thinking that I value are not doing as well as I would like. Those who are bringing them down are people who want more respect than I believe they deserve. The status contest has lost the plot of focusing on earned prestige. Asputs it,
those who cannot compete on ability compete on conformity
This essay is part of a series on human interdependence.
The Dominance/Prestige distinction was already part of the literature. Will Storr seems to have come up with Propriety as the third form of status himself: though he is strangely modest about it. But once the distinction is made, it is clear enough. In his work on Middle Eastern kin groups, Philip Carl Salzmann makes the point that women in such kin groups can lose honour but cannot gain it. That is the dynamic of Propriety rather than Prestige.
Storr argues that the post-medieval breakout in science and technology in Europe was possible due to prestige from discovery providing a status path not confined by the conformities of propriety. If you want to see propriety trumping discovery-prestige, then Shirtgate, when a rocket scientist who had led a team that had landed a probe on a comet was publicly humiliated over his shirt, is such a moment.
We are dealing with the fuzzy boundaries one sees so often in social dynamics. Imposing a new norm of propriety like that through public mobbing. Clearly, it is invoking propriety but is it not also a dominance play? Propriety gets “bite” from the sanctions implied in social norms. When is that about order and group-cohesion and when dominance and to what degree?
As a hard nosed scientist, the "Follow the Science" statement gives me mixed feelings. Science, using the scientific method, is about the only way of possibly knowing what is valid and not nonsense. However, when this term is used by activists and non-STEM people who can't even read the original scientific journal articles in the areas in which they opine, I feel very apprehensive. Authors of those articles use the language of STEM, failing to understand that the language of Science and STEM is, in fact, mathematics. The meaning of the term Follow the Science can only be considered a nonsensical rhetorical power grab when they don't actually comprehend the science itself.
I have watched area after area in non-STEM areas drift into non-reproducible nonsense, but never anticipated the intrusion of non-scientific notions into science itself. Yet now DEI statements are becoming required for all faculty in academia, and selections of faculty and grant awards have become based upon DEI not on merit. I fear I am witnessing Academia dying in the West. Meanwhile the papers I am reading and reviewing coming out of China are top flight research in STEM areas. Even their English language has improved dramatically in the last decade (initially it was sometimes hard to figure out what they were saying).
The Chinese government effectively eliminated a whole generation of scientists working outside of weapons research (they were still doing top flight weapons research), as I discovered when I was using Chinese papers as references on my Ph.D. Thesis. In 1984, when I visited China as a member of a group of aquaculture experts sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Science, there were new students and a few old scientists, who had been removed from science for years, literally working in the rice fields planting and harvesting. In the field of aquaculture they were merely copying the mistakes that were made elsewhere. Now, having thrown off the yoke of Mao, China now dominates aquaculture in the world, and the quality of their science is excellent.
Mao's Cultural Revolution rejected old mandarin merit-based systems which had served the country well for hundreds of years in favor of "holistic systems", where selection was based upon professed beliefs rather than on accumulations of knowledge. The "Revolution" failed dismally, at the cost of tens of millions of lives. After some 10 years, cooler, brighter, less doctrinaire heads prevailed, and China returned to meritocracy and competence and stopped ignoring the correlations between supply and demand. They seem to fully understand the implications of their cultural revolution, so they probably won't do that again for at least a few generations.
Our question is whether we will end our current "cultural revolution" before or after it destroys our ability to compete in what has increasingly become a merit-based global reality. We are witnessing our equivalent of China's cultural revolution, believing if we purify the thought of the people, we will all achieve a successful wealthy existence without essentially having to earn it. It sounds good -- noble, even -- but it's too bad it doesn't work in the real world. What works in the real world is merit-based, non-political science with a capital "S", as in S. T. E. M.